I went to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum on a recent trip to Japan, and somehow despite knowing a good deal about the bombing beforehand, I felt completely unprepared for how disturbing it was to see the images and hearing the testimonies. There are times when you have to look away, but I think sometimes its important not to. I’m sharing these testimonies for the same reason I went to the museum: to bear witness to what had happened and pay my respects in some way to the people who suffered and died. But I understand that particularly with images, some people just can’t get these kinds of things out of their heads, so I’m not posting directly any graphic images and am going to sort of give a heads up before the links that do involve graphic images.
Testimony of Rikuko Tanaka (not graphic)
80,000 people were killed on the first day, and around another 80,000 in the following months from resulting injuries and from the effects of the radiation. The vast majority of these people were civilians. 70% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. While the radiation is now gone from the city, its impact is still being felt – survivors of the bomb have been and still are falling victim to cancer and leukemia at hugely higher rates because of the radiation. It would be bad enough for so many people to die, but the way in which they died is beyond words, people burned beyond recognition, bleeding, surrounded by the dead and dying, all the buildings collapsed or on fire, covered in ash and soot and the sky raining down black rain.
(past this point the descriptions are more graphic.)
The museum presented a drawing with this accompanying narrative :
“Notes from the Artist (summary):
(With severe burns, my mother) passed away the next day, the 7th, but she was very alert until she died. With the flesh and skin completely falling away from both legs and arms, she looked like someone wearing surgical gloves. She said that the bomb’s blast broke her back and she was unable to walk, but perhaps she believed that Japan would win, because right up until she died she didn’t once say that she was in pain, and was just concerned for me. My mother’s face was charred black and swollen up round, like steamed bread.”
I highly recommend the testimony from Akihiro Takahashi, who drew and painted images of what he went through after the bomb fell. He seemed to have really thought deeply about what happened, and shared his story a lot. He was the director of the museum for a period. The images are of course quite graphic, so if you’re trying to avoid that, you could also read his written account of what happened. He passed away at the age of 80 in December 2011, the Washington Post has a nice obituary.
One thing that Akihiro Takahashi’s written account emphasizes is the role of governments and political interests in creating enormous human suffering. I appreciated that the museum as well as Mr. Takahashi were not pretending that this was some particularly American failing, but were very up front about the fact that the Japanese government had committed atrocities during that war and others. From what I have read so far, it seems to me that this was a story about how little those in power care about everyone else. The standard American response to the utter horror of what happened is to say that it was necessary because there was no other way to end the war, but I do not think that’s at all true.
The museum presented a great deal of documentary evidence, which showed that the US was considering a number of different ways to end the war, including having the Soviet Union join the war, starting a ground invasion, and accepting a conditional surrender from Japan. One of the key points was that the Japanese emperor wanted to maintain the emperor system, i.e. stay in power, and the U.S. did not want that. Other concerns – directly mentioned in letters between U.S. decision makers – was the desire to justify the enormous expense of developing the bomb, and to limit Soviet influence after the war. The plan was originally that the Soviet Union would join the war, and they decided to drop the bomb before the date when that was set to happen to limit Soviet influence. The degree of calculating inhumanity is just shocking. They made a list of potential places to subject to this kind of torture, and one of the criteria was that the city should be a large populous city so that it would display the bomb’s effects the most dramatically. You know, like they were putting on a show. Some of the bomb’s developers suggested that the bomb should be dropped after a warning or ultimatum was given, and if they had done that, all the civilians who died would have had the chance to evacuate, but the scientists were overruled. There were so many chances they had to do things differently, to be a little bit more human, and they failed.
Another thing that shocked me was to learn that the Japanese emperor after the bombing of Hiroshima did not accept the unconditional surrender. How insane would you have to be not to surrender after that? And given that the key point was his own ability to stay on the throne, essentially this was the emperor deciding his own power was worth risking the lives of countless more of his citizens. The thousands of lives lost in Nagasaki are on his head as well as on those who decided – after seeing what they had done to Hiroshima – to do it again in Nagasaki. Another key point in the surrender deal was that the Japanese government wanted to leave the war crimes trials of Japanese officials to the Japanese government itself, which is essentially to say they wanted immunity for themselves. Also the fact that then after all this, when the British took over the country, they tried to censor journalists writing about and photographing the aftermath, as well as censoring books written on the subject.